Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. ranks the top 15 players in the NFC West. Today: Nos. 6-10.
Franklin6. Aubrayo Franklin, San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle: Franklin, a free agent-to-be, will be highly sought after once the bell sounds for free agency to open. Teams such as Washington and Kansas City should covet him to anchor the middle of their 3-4 defenses, because Franklin does that very well. A pure nose tackle who is very difficult to move off his spot, Franklin makes everyone around him better. He offers little as a pass-rusher but is extremely effective against the run. Trust me, Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes are extremely grateful to him. San Francisco should do everything possible to keep him. Whatever he signs for, Franklin is worth it.
Mebane7. Brandon Mebane, Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle: Like Franklin, Mebane should become a free agent. Mebane isn’t a slouch against the run, but he is much better suited for a 4-3 where he can use his array of abilities, including a quick get-off.
Mebane doesn’t get the publicity that he deserves, but he does everything asked of him well. Carolina or Denver would love to have him.
Okung8. Russell Okung, Seattle Seahawks offensive tackle: Rookies are not supposed to make the game look as easy as Okung did last season. If had been healthy for 16 games, he might already be considered amongst the best left tackles in the league. That might be a bit premature, but he is quite high on my left tackle list. Okung is very fluid for his size and light on his feet. His technique in both protection and as a run blocker is refined for someone his age. He will only get better. It won’t be long before people are comparing Okung to Joe Thomas and Jake Long as the best player at the position. As long as Okung can stay on the field, he is the cornerstone of Seattle’s offense.
Laurinaitis9. James Laurinaitis, St. Louis Rams linebacker: Laurinaitis is improving rapidly. He is already a fixture in the middle of the Rams’ defense and has the intelligence and toughness to lead for years to come. He is still developing as a coverage linebacker, but he isn’t a liability. Laurinaitis is exceptional against the run. He is quick to diagnose and wastes little time getting to the ball carrier. Fred Robbins (who nearly made this list) does deserve an assist here, because he was great on the interior in front of Laurinaitis last season.
Iupati10. Mike Iupati, San Francisco 49ers guard: This guy is just a masher. He was outstanding as a rookie and got better as the season went along. That is a fantastic accomplishment, considering that his adjustment from the University of Idaho to the NFL was a very drastic one. Iupati still has a lot of technique work to do, especially with his hand placement in pass protection. But he is extremely nasty, massive and moves very well for his size. Led by Iupati, expect the 49ers' young offensive line to take a major step forward in 2011.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL